Some Light on the Higher Ed Horizon
As another year dawns, the economic outlook for U.S. public higher education
institutions is pretty bleak. However, I think there are some bright spots on
the horizon for those of us who work with electronically delivered classes and
More faculty members than ever before are using technology to provide academic
services to students. At the recent Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications
(WCET) conference, Gartner Research Group predicted that by the end of this
year 80 percent of higher education institutions will have a single, enterprisewide
course management system. While most of the students using these resources will
also be taking face-to-face classes on their campuses, many will be distance
learning students. That means more place-committed students will be able to
have access to higher education.
As more faculty members are using course management systems, they are looking
for ways to save some of their time by not creating everything they use. While
they want to create a unique "class" for their students, they are realizing
they can take advantage of some of the open educational resources now available
for them. MIT's course materials are coming online (www.MIT.edu);
Rice University's Connexions project (www.cnx.org)
will provide open-access teaching materials; The MERLOT project (www.merlot.org)
continues to make learning objects available for faculty to use. In addition,
the faculty that created Virginia Tech's Math Emporium (www.vt.edu),
which has lowered costs and increased the quality of students' learning, is
willing to make their software available in an open format for faculties at
other campuses to adapt and use. I like to think of all these types of projects
as gifts to the world.
In addition, state leaders are finally looking at policies and practices that
have been inhibitors to institutions using distance learning to serve students.
These barriers usually inadvertently developed as they evolved to address problems
prior to the current capabilities of technology to effectively serve students.
One of the most common barriers involves differential funding for electronic
and face-to-face classes. In many states electronically delivered classes were
funded at a percentage of on-campus classes or not eligible at all for state
reimbursement. This is beginning to change as policy-makers in several states
are realizing they need to serve more students for little increase in cost.
They hope to divert some of the students' activities away from campuses and
realize they must fund the campuses to make it worthwhile.
Finally, as Dennis Jones, president of the National Center for Higher Education
Management Systems, always points out, 85 percent of campus budgets are tied
up with people. Cutting the budgets for savings from the other 15 percent makes
little sense when campuses are seeing serious budget deficits. The technology
budgets fall into that other 15 percent. Re-arranging how people on campuses
work and what they do is the only way to really change the costs of serving
students. Hopefully, state and campus decision makers will understand this and
focus their efforts on helping change faculty and staff activities.
While things may seem a little bleak this new year, I think we will see dramatically
increased opportunities for creative thinkers. We have an opportunity to encourage
the adoption of some new ways to use technologies for teaching and learning.
I wish for each of you a peaceful 2003.
Sally Johnstone is founding director of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) and serves on advisory groups for state, national, and international organizations to help plan and evaluate eLearning projects.